I looked down at the paper, still touching the tip of my shoe. I reached for it, flipping the page over to look.
Scrawls of ink outlined a drawing of a girl lying on a bench.
A sick feeling started to twist in my stomach, like motion sickness.
And then the girl in the drawing turned her head, and her inky eyes glared straight into mine.
On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.
Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they'll both be targets.
Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.
It’s difficult to discuss this book as a whole, because in a way, it actually felt like two books: a story about an American girl who lives in Japan, and a paranormal romance featuring people who can make ink come to life. So I’ll go ahead and discuss those two aspects separately.
*Before going into this, I should make it clear that I’m no authority on Japan or its culture. I used to watch a lot of anime, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
The “Living Abroad” story
The biggest question I had going into this novel is “Is it cultural appropriation?” Japanese culture is very trendy among certain subsets of our demographic, and the fact that the protagonist is a white American means that a lot of people might see it as such. However, if you consider this aspect alone (minus the paranormal stuff), then Katie’s story is a valid one: a girl moves to a foreign country and has to learn to navigate a whole new language and culture.
Does that mean Amanda Sun handled the story well? Yes and no. At the detail level, Sun does a very good job of illustrating Japan for her readers: describing locales, incorporating mythology, lifestyle, and culture, etc. There were a couple places that felt too “tell-y,” such as where she explains what “-san” and “-chan” mean (I think this is something readers can figure out for themselves, especially if they already have some knowledge of Japanese culture), and the sakura blossom metaphor felt a little heavy handed, but overall, this book felt very well-researched. The last two chapters were especially strong, both on a stylistic and an emotional level.
But what about Katie? It is difficult to move to a new country and learn a new language, but I don’t think we saw enough of her struggle. By the time the story starts, she already has friends and a working knowledge of Japanese. In the first chapter, there are a couple of occasions where she makes a slight cultural mishap or doesn’t understand what someone is saying, but these moments all but vanish by chapter two (other than not understanding kanji, which doesn’t make much sense—she should at least be able to recognize some characters). This especially bothered me, because Tomohiro (and the author, in the interview at the back of the book) kept referring to Katie as “brave” because of her struggles. This struck me as a highly privileged attitude. Adapting isn’t something you do out of bravery—you do it because you need to survive. When foreigners move to the United States, no one applauds them for learning English, because that’s what they’re expected to do. I’m not trying to de-value those people’s accomplishments, but it annoys me when Americans are dubbed “brave” and “open-minded” for doing what many of my friends, family, and acquaintances do every single day.
The “Paranormal Romance”
But what about the paranormal aspects? Unfortunately, the only good thing I can say about this is that the mythos is really neat—people who can make ink come to life. But beyond that, the plot was so cliché (girl moves to a new school and becomes obsessed with local broody paranormal boy) that I just didn’t care. Tomohiro had the potential for a great story, and Ishikawa’s character was even more interesting, but Katie’s character didn’t fit here. (This is why I see this novel as two stories rather than one.) Sun tried to make her relevant by giving her some weird unexplained power of her own, but quite honestly, I just found that to be invasive. (If there’s any aspect of that story that I consider “cultural appropriation,” it’s that.)
Also, I don’t agree with Tomohiro’s decision near the end of the novel. Remember that article that everyone blew up about back in November? [This one]. The one that stated that YA heroes should embrace power, rather than reject it? Nowhere did I find that more true than in this novel. Power is only as good or as evil as what you do with it. If you have a great power that could benefit humanity, I see no reason not to use it.
Ink comes out June 25th. I received my ARC at BEA.